In the early hours of 25 August 2017, an armed group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a series of coordinated attacks against several police stations in the remote northern region of Arakan state, in Western Burma. Those attacks gave the Burmese military a convenient excuse to complete once and for all what its Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, described at the time as the “unfinished job” of getting rid of the unwelcome presence in Arakan of the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country that has been persecuted for decades under the false assumptions of being “illegal immigrants” from what is now Bangladesh.
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During the weeks after the attacks by ARSA, the Burmese military killed thousands, raped countless Rohingya women and razed to the ground dozens of villages, pushing more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh in what was the largest and swiftest exodus since the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda a quarter of a century ago. Those atrocities elicited the accusation of genocide by The Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the International Tribunal of Justice, and no other than the Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi decided to lead the defense, in the preliminary sessions held in December in The Hague, of the Burmese military and a civilian government she heads and which has closed ranks with the army when it comes to the Rohingya.
The following text, an account of the immediate events leading to the brutal massacres perpetrated by the Burmese army three years ago, is an excerpt from Carlos Sardiña Galache’s The Burmese Labyrinth: A History of the Rohingya Tragedy.
A new Rohingya insurgency emerged into view in the early hours of 9 October 2016, when around 250 men assaulted the headquarters of the Border Guard Police (BGP) near Maungdaw town, and two security forces’ positions in the townships of Maungdaw and Rathedaung. The attackers were mostly armed with spears, knives and homemade weapons, and their force was based on their sheer numbers and coordination. Nine members of the security forces were killed by the attackers, and dozens of Rohingya insurgents were shot by the security forces.
The attacks had been organized by a new group called Harakah Al-Yakin (‘Faith Movement’), later also named the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The Tatmadaw responded with its usual brutality. It promptly declared the three northernmost townships of Arakan ‘military operations areas’, and launched a ‘clearance operation’, along with the BGP, to hunt down the insurgents. The army claimed that 102 Rohingya militants and thirty-two members of the security forces were killed, but human rights researchers put the toll of dead Rohingya much higher, and determined that it included non-militants. During the operations, the military and the BGP committed a wide array of atrocities, including burning whole villages to the ground, arbitrary detentions, execution of civilians, and the gang-rape of Rohingya women. Within just a few weeks, 80,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh.
I visited Arakan a few days after the insurgent attacks. Northern Arakan, with military operations still ongoing, was completely sealed off to foreigners, and I could not travel beyond Sittwe. The city was at peace, far from the fighting; but rumours about what was going on a few kilometres to the north ran wild. For many Rakhine, already distrustful of the Rohingya, the attacks were a confirmation of some of their worst fears, which framed the Rohingya as a murderous terrorist menace. The presence of Rakhine Buddhists who had fled or been evacuated by the conflict in Maungdaw contributed to the stoking of such fears.
To enquire about the authorities’ position, I visited Tin Maung Shwe, the executive secretary in Arakan. As such, he was the person responsible for overseeing the General Administration Department in the state. An unfailingly polite man, Tin Maung Shwe had received me about one year earlier, before the change of government, when he had held the same position. His office was air-conditioned, clean and almost luxurious, offering a stark contrast with the rundown compound that served as the seat of Arakan State’s government in downtown Sittwe. At first, he was as friendly as he had been on our previous encounter, but our conversation became increasingly tense as we talked.
Tin Maung Shwe claimed that the militants belonged to ‘a terrorist organization called Aqa Mul Mujahedeen’, and that they had ‘a network which provides budget and support’. He added: ‘They have connection with RSO [a long-extinct Rohingya armed group] and ISIS in Saudi Arabia.’ According to him, the involvement of those groups had been established by monitoring remittances sent to Arakan from the Middle East – a common practice in the region – as well as through confessions made by arrested militants. At that time, sixteen alleged militants had been arrested. ‘We didn’t do any torture to them. They told their whole story easily. They said everything we needed to know – they explained everything thoroughly’, he asserted just when I was about to raise the issue of the torture routinely practised by the security forces in the country.
When I asked him about the human rights violations allegedly committed by the security forces during counterinsurgency operations, Tin Maung Shwe denied them flatly, claiming: ‘We have signed the Geneva Convention, and we carry out operations according to the law. In some villages, the villagers warmly welcome and accept our troops, so there’s no problem. In some villages, the people run away. In some places some people attack, using knives and some weapons, the members of the security forces. At that time, the soldiers shoot and then they die.’
When I asked him whether it was necessary to use lethal force against someone attacking soldiers with a mere knife, he replied: ‘Your concept is right, but this is an operation area. It means no consideration, no thinking. There’s one instruction: if somebody responds, you shoot.’ As I continued this line of questioning, he reached the limit of his patience. Eventually, he put an end to our conversation, saying: ‘We have to protect our national interests, and those Muslims are not part of them. We don’t care about what outsiders think. We must protect our land and our people. Humanitarian concerns are only our second priority.’
Tin Maung Shwe did not offer any evidence in support of his allegations of links between the new Rohingya insurgency and RSO or ISIS; he was merely echoing the official line adopted by the government at the time of depicting Harakah Al-Yakin/ARSA as part of international jihadism. Claims of connections with transnational jihadist networks were also encouraged by Indian media and intelligence sources, which pointed fingers at Pakistani intelligence and extremist groups as associates of the Rohingya insurgents. The ultranationalist Hindu govern- ment of Narendra Modi in India had an interest in isolating Pakistan and attracting Burma to its side; but it also wanted to get rid of up to 40,000 Rohingya refugees within its own borders, so such claims, invariably coming from anonymous sources, should be taken with a grain of salt. But they were widely reported by the Burmese media, and gave greater credence to the jihadist narrative many were ready to believe inside the country.
Branding Al-Yakin/ARSA as a Jihadist group served to delegitimize its political grievances and demonize the Rohingya community as a whole; but links between the insurgents and international terrorist networks were at best extremely thin, if not nonexistent. According to a comprehensive report published by the International Crisis Group in the aftermath of the attacks, ‘Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.’ In public statements issued through YouTube and Twitter, the leaders of the insurgency consistently denied the allegations, asserting that it was fighting for the rights of the Rohingya community.
Al-Yakin/ARSA was reportedly led by a committee of twenty Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, plus other twenty exiles on the ground in Northern Arakan who had been providing training and organizing villagers throughout the region since the aftermath of the sectarian violence of 2012. Its leader was a man called Ata Ullah, a Rohingya born in Pakistan who had moved with his family to Saudi Arabia at a young age. With funding from the Rohingya diaspora, he and other exiles infiltrated Northern Arakan and organized independent cells in the region. Fatwas issued by influential imams and mullahs supporting the group’s struggle convinced many people to join.
According to an investigation by Agence France-Presse conducted in Pakistan, while organizing Al-Yakin in 2012, Ata Ullah had sought the support of people linked to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri separatist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba – organizations that had publicly expressed support for the Rohingya and condemned the Burmese government.14 He had reportedly given some of them huge amounts of money, but had been snubbed and even cheated by jihadis, who took his money but never delivered the promised weapons. He left Pakistan resenting those jihadist organizations that had refused to offer tangible support, and later on he in turn he refused the support such organizations offered when Al-Yakin/ARSA became prominent after its attacks against the Burmese security forces.
By all accounts, Ata Ullah and Al-Yakin/ARSA were committed to an ethno-nationalist struggle for their people. The early overtures to transnational jihadist networks seen to have been purely instrumental – made in order to secure weapons and training. The renaming of the organization from Al-Yakin to ARSA seems to have been an attempt to project a secular image to an international audience that might identify a religiously inflected name with international jihadism.
After meeting Tin Maung Shwe and interviewing several displaced Buddhists, I visited once again the camps where Muslims had been confined since 2012. In the aftermath of the attacks, security had been beefed up, but otherwise not much seemed to have changed. Nevertheless, there was a palpable sense of foreboding everywhere in the camps. Nobody expressed it more eloquently than my old friend Kyaw Hla Aung, the lawyer and politician I had met many times in previous years.
‘I have condemned the attacks from the beginning. We have tried to appeal peacefully to the international community, and these attacks are a huge mistake. Other ethnic groups in Myanmar can do that, but we can’t’, he told me in his rickety house in the village of Tet Kal Pyin. ‘We have told repeatedly our Rohingya youth not to engage in violence because we don’t like it and it would make things worse for our people, but we cannot control them in this situation.’ He also criticized the government for its double standards: ‘Why [did the government not] take action against the Rakhine terrorists who set fire [to] Muslim houses in Sittwe four years ago? Now they accuse us of encouraging terrorism, but the government encourages terrorism against us.’
Any possible hope he might have harboured about Suu Kyi’s government had faded away completely. ‘She can’t do anything – she can’t even set foot in Rakhine State, and she doesn’t know what is happening here’, he told me. When I asked him whether he thought that this very sense of hopelessness might have led some young people to take weapons, he answered sadly and somewhat cryptically: ‘We are asphyxiated.’
A few months later, in March 2017, I was granted a rare permit to visit northern Arakan. Ever since the emergence of Al-Yakin/ARSA, the government had organized a few tightly controlled tours for selected foreign media, in which there was no freedom to talk with eyewitnesses and local Rohingya without the surveillance of officials. People inter- viewed during those media tours were harassed by the local authorities for denouncing atrocities committed by the security forces, while others were probably later killed by the insurgents for denying them. But I was able to travel on my own, accompanied by a photographer and my own translator, so we could conduct our interviews without any government official present.
We visited the first village attacked by the security forces after the Al-Yakin/ARSA attacks on 9 October. Myo Thu Gyi, four kilometres away from Maungdaw town, the home of about 1,000 Rohingya people. It was split into two sections, about 500 metres apart, separated by the paddy fields that are the sole source of livelihood for many of its inhabitants.
The first person we interviewed was a man I shall call Hussein Muhammad. Hussein was quite old, probably older than seventy; but, like many people in Northern Arakan, he did not know his real age. An extremely thin man, he sported a white beard that half-covered a face crossed with deep wrinkles. He and his extended family of sixteen people lived in a small compound with two bamboo houses, two latrines and a sink with a couple of taps. On 10 October, at around six in the morning, he was suddenly awakened by the noise of people surrounding his house. More than a dozen armed men, members of the army and the BGP, had invaded the family’s compound.
‘They asked us if there was any terrorist in our house’, Hussein recounted. ‘Then they dragged out two of my grandsons and told me they were taking them to talk to their superior. I tried to stop them and gave them my family list to show them they were my grandsons, but they beat me up and threatened me with their weapons.’ Hussein could not contain his tears when he recalled how his grandsons were snatched from him. Their names were Ali Muhammed and Ali Ayaz, and they were twenty and thirteen years old. Hussein could not see with his own eyes what had happened next, as he was not allowed to leave the compound. As he begged soldiers and policemen to spare his grandsons, the boys were dragged along with another man to a small forest around one hundred metres away. Ahmed Mahmood, a farmer in his late twenties, was hiding in a hut nearby and could see what happened next: ‘Four members of the Border Guard Police made them sit down on the ground with their hands under their legs. One of the policemen executed them while the others were looking around. He kicked them first in their backs and then put a bullet in their heads, one by one. He shot the youngest one twice, once in his back and once in his head.’
‘My grandsons had nothing to do with the insurgency. They were here in our house when the insurgents attacked the Border Guard Police. They just sold betel nut, worked, and tried to study. They never got into trouble’, Hussein told me while unsuccessfully trying to contain his tears. They had been picked up by the soldiers for the only reason that they were seen peeking through the bamboo fence surrounding the family’s compound when the security forces invaded the village.
Around the same time that the grandsons of Hussein Muhammad were executed in the betel nut garden, two military men stormed into a small mud house in the other section of the village. ‘They beat up my husband in front of me and my seven children. We cried and pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen to us. They kept beating him, and I passed out. When I regained consciousness, he wasn’t there’, recalled Noor Begum, a fragile woman in her forties who was in the house that day.
The previous afternoon, her husband, Tayoub Ali, a man in his early fifties who made a living doing odd jobs in town, had told his family to stay in their house. He foresaw trouble. He had learned of the insurgent attacks, and had returned home immediately to warn his family. A few hours later, Ali was dragged by the soldiers to a spot near the cemetery.
He was executed there with a shot in the head. His brother had been dragged from his house, but soldiers and border policemen had beaten him so brutally that he was unable to walk, so he was shot halfway to the execution ground, near a vegetable garden on the edge of that section of the village. Fatima, a woman in her twenties whose house was not far from the spot, saw the killings unfold: ‘The area was full of soldiers and Border Guard Police; I couldn’t distinguish who was which because all of them were wearing dark green raincoats. They were dragging that man, but he could not walk, so they just shot him right there, in front of me.’
A total of seven men were assassinated in Myo Thu Gyi on that fateful day. Several hundred soldiers and members of the Border Guard Police took part in the operation. They returned a couple of hours after the assault to take away the bodies, including those of Muhammad’s grandsons. Relatives and neighbours had time to hide three other corpses, including that of Tayoub Ali, in order to give them a proper Muslim burial the next day. My findings were confirmed by Amnesty International, whose researchers had conducted interviews with witnesses who had fled to Bangladesh, and Chris Lewa, director of the organization Arakan Project, who had also conducted interviews with eyewitnesses.
The executions were cruel and completely random, as if the security forces just wanted to take their revenge for the insurgents’ attacks without caring whether those they executed were guilty or innocent. The seven men killed were not armed, and they did not attack the security forces; in one case, one man just ran away when he saw the soldiers approaching, and was shot in the back. Only a few hours passed between the attacks by ARSA and the assault on Myo Thu Gyi, and it was impossible that the security forces could have conducted a proper investigation to ascertain whether there were insurgents in the village.
The assault on Myo Thu Gyi was a straightforward case of collective punishment. Similar incidents had happened in several villages through- out Northern Arakan.
A few hours after visiting Myo Thu Gyi, that very same night, we could see things from the other side in Maungdaw town. In an unexpected show of openness, the police allowed us to accompany them for a few hours as they patrolled the town under curfew. The commanders in charge showed a surprising willingness to talk to us.
Maungdaw is a dusty, decaying town that lies along the Naf river, which marks the border with Bangladesh. Only a few of its streets are properly paved, and most of the houses are rickety wooden structures. Most of its inhabitants are Rohingya, but there is a sizeable Rakhine population. The two communities live mostly in segregated quarters, often across the road from one another, but the central market is dominated by Muslims, for whom it is easier to conduct trade across the border. The two communities meet there on a daily basis, but not much elsewhere. An apparent normality reigned during the day, but things were different at night. As we patrolled, the contrast between the Rohingya and the Rakhine quarters was revealed in all its starkness. In the Rakhine quarters, lights were on, and it was not uncommon to see people watching television through open windows or sitting in their courtyards. By contrast, the Rohingya quarters were completely deserted: windows were closed, no light came from any house, and no human presence was visible.
At that time, 600 Rohingya had been arrested, but no leader had been caught and the police were on alert. At one point we stopped and left the vehicle for a cigarette. Kyaw Aye Hlaing, the police captain, remarked: ‘They must be hiding somewhere. We know their faces and their names, but for us all these Bengalis look the same, so it’s difficult to recognise them. The government has offered them National Verification Cards, but many refused to accept them. That makes our task of identifying people very difficult. I think they refused the NVC cards so they can join the insurgency more easily.’ He was apparently unable to recognize the fact that such cards do not offer proof of citizenship, and are seen by many Rohingya as a trap designed to perpetuate their statelessness. As I had seen many times before, any behaviour by the Rohingya was seen in the worst possible light. That was also a consequence of ignorance. Kyaw Aye Hlaing admitted to me that the police had almost no trustworthy Rohingya informants, and virtually no policemen or soldiers spoke their language.
A deeply ingrained contempt for the Rohingya dominated the way the police dealt with them. ‘The Bengalis don’t belong here. They are illegal immigrants, and they can’t possibly integrate because they are uneducated. For instance, [they] don’t respect women’s rights’, Kyaw Aye Hlaing told me in one of our smoking breaks. We somehow engaged in an argument about the way Muslims treated women, and he insisted on giving me a real-life example to prove his point. He called over the Rohingya translator who accompanied the patrol. The man approached with trepidation, visibly intimidated. ‘Do you allow your wife to leave your house?’ the captain asked him. The translator was cowed, almost trembling, and smiled nervously. He hesitated for a few seconds, possibly pondering what answer would save him from a beating, and he replied with a tentative and barely audible ‘No’. Turning to us, Kyaw Aye Hlaing said triumphantly: ‘You see? They don’t respect women’s rights!’ Then he dismissed the translator with a brusque gesture, and the man left as quickly as he had approached us.
Assuming that what the translator had said was true, he could have had good reasons for preventing his wife from leaving her home. A month before, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had released a report on abuses in Arakan during the ‘clearance operations’, gathered from hundreds of interviews with refugees in Bangladesh. Fifty-two of the 101 women interviewed reported having suffered rape or sexual violence at the hands of the security forces. The standard argument from Rakhine nationalists and state officials to refute such accusations is that Rohingya women are so ugly and dirty that no Burmese soldier would rape them.
At the end of our tour with the Maungdaw police, we stopped at a bridge that marked the limit of their jurisdiction. I asked Kyaw Aye Hlaing what lay beyond, even though I already knew. One kilometre away, in the darkness and under the jurisdiction of the BGP, was Myo Thu Gyi, the village we had visited without the knowledge of those policemen. When I asked the captain why the security forces had decided to raid that particular village after Al-Yakin/ARSA’s attacks, he said: ‘We have known for years that this village is full of extremists. It was a very troublesome village during the violence in 2012, so the army and the BGP decided to go there first.’ His reply confirmed that no serious investigation had been carried out, and that the raid had been nothing but revenge.
For all their brutality, the ‘clearance operations’ carried out by the Tatmadaw after October 2016 paled in comparison with what came next. In the early hours of 25 August 2017, ARSA attacked again, this time mobilizing a larger number of villagers in new coordinated attacks at around thirty security forces’ positions in Northern Arakan. The attacks came a couple of weeks after the military had increased its presence in the region by sending hundreds of troops there. The move was a reaction to a spate of killings of both Muslim and Buddhist villagers that the government attributed to the insurgents, and was accompanied by the arrests of dozens of alleged militants. Some Rohingya villages in Rathedaung had been blockaded for weeks by the security forces and by their Buddhist neighbours, in what was an increasingly tense environment.
ARSA launched its attacks just hours after the Commission on Arakan State, chaired by Kofi Annan, released its final report and recom- mendations. In a statement issued the day of the attacks, ARSA blamed the military, accusing it of ‘ramping up’ its presence in the state ‘in order to derail’ the work of the Commission. ‘We have been taking our defensive actions against the Burmese marauding forces in more than 25 different places across the region’, it explained through its Twitter account, arguing that its goal was ‘to drive the Burmese colonizing forces away’.
But the arguments deployed by the militant group were scarcely convincing. The attacks may well have been a reaction to previous aggression by the military, but they could hardly be described as defen- sive. And ARSA, unlike older and much better-established armed insur- gent groups elsewhere in the country, lacked any capacity to defend the people it claimed to be protecting, let alone drive away an infinitely more powerful army. The attacks provided the Tatmadaw with an excuse to attack the Rohingya population in northern Arakan in its entirety with a ferocity that was unprecedented.
The new ‘clearance operations’ launched by the Tatmadaw brought the ‘Four Cuts’ strategy to its extremes of brutality. And they provided the chance to do something far more drastic than neutralizing a group of ragtag militants. ‘The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job’, were the ominous words of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in early September, suggesting a plan to get rid of the Rohingya once and for all. The job was done mostly by two elite light-infantry divisions, the 33rd and the 99th, well-known for their ruthlessness. Their ferocity was enhanced by their hatred towards ‘Bengali immigrants’. ‘If they’re Bengali, they’ll be killed’, a soldier posted on his Facebook account before heading to northern Arakan. The troops were aided by the local Border Guard Police, and by some Rakhine villagers who were invited to take part in the orgy of violence.
The brutality of the operations was even visible from space. Two months later, Human Rights Watch released satellite images that showed that 288 Rohingya villages, mostly in Maungdaw township, had been totally or partially destroyed by fire. The government accused the Rohingya of torching their own villages – a style of denial that had become customary since the pogroms in 1978. In the next months, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh seeking refuge, in what was the biggest and swiftest exodus since the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in the mid 1990s. It was also the biggest and swiftest exodus in Burma’s history, even dwarfing the exodus of half a million Indians at the beginning of World War II. Around 380,000 of the refugees were children, many of them unaccompanied.
As northern Arakan has been closed to independent researchers since late August 2017, the full scale of the carnage remains unknown. Estimates of the number of Rohingya killed range from 6,700, including 730 children below the age of five, ‘in the most conservative estimations’ carried out by MSF, to 24,800 deaths and around 18,500 raped, according to a report made by a consortium of international researchers. Some Rohingya refugees worked on elaborating a full list of victims, including their names and villages, and compiled a total of more than 10,000 killed during ‘clearance operations’ during 2016 and 2017.
Abdullah, a skinny man in his forties, witnessed one of the cruellest massacres. Traumatized and overwhelmed by grief, he told me his story in one of the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh two months after the fact. He was a mullah in the religious school of Tula Toli, a village of almost 800 Rohingya households in northern Maungdaw. According to him, relations with Rakhine neighbours from nearby villages had always been peaceful. That peace was broken on 30 August 2016. In the early morning, Aung Kyaw Sein, the Rakhine headman of the whole village, phoned Rohingya leaders in the village to tell them that there were soldiers in a Rakhine village in the north, and that they would later move on to Tula Toli. ‘He told us that we didn’t have to worry, that nothing would happen to us provided we stayed in our houses, but that they could shoot anybody they saw in the street’, Abdullah recounted. Most people seemed to trust the headman, and locked themselves in their houses.
Despite the headman’s promises, when around 150 soldiers arrived from the north, they set fire to a house with a rocket launcher, and the flames immediately spread throughout the village to the south, jumping easily from one wood-and-bamboo building to the next. People left their houses, trying to escape from the fire, and many were shot on sight. Some tried to flee to a forest nearby, but a mob of Rakhine villagers armed with machetes and spikes was waiting for them. In this way, the villagers were pushed to the bank of the river marking the southern limit of the village.
Hundreds of them attempted to cross the river while the soldiers shot at them from a hilltop. ‘Many people were killed by the bullets as they crossed the river; I managed to escape with other fifteen people’, Abdullah told me. Near the cemetery, hidden in the bush, he witnessed the atrocities that unfolded next. ‘The military gathered all the people in the same place, and then put them in different groups: one for men, another for old women, another for girls and another for children. Then, a group of soldiers shot the group of men, for about ten minutes, laughing and shouting savagely in Burmese.’ Once they had finished, the soldiers walked in the midst of the bodies and finished off the survivors, hacking them with machetes. ‘People, men and women, were crying for help, but there was nobody to help them. A group of Rakhine villagers stood nearby, but they did nothing.’ The operation was repeated with the older women, after which the soldiers made a big pile out of the bodies, poured petrol on it and set it on fire. ‘After that, they threw the small children to the fire – they burned them alive’, Abdullah said.
In the meantime, some soldiers had tied the young women to trees nearby. When they finished off the other groups, they untied them and took them to a group of houses that had not been burned by the fires. ‘Groups of three or four soldiers entered the houses, taking turns of about half an hour. I couldn’t see what was going on inside, but I could imagine. One of my daughters was possibly in one of them’, Abdullah recalled, bursting into tears. For three hours, Abdullah watched the soldiers entering and leaving the houses. He remembered that every- thing was in silence, and he was unable to move, as if possessed by the sheer horror of what he was witnessing.
‘When the soldiers finished, they torched the houses one by one. I could hear some of the girls screaming. They didn’t even give them the mercy of a quick death – they burned them alive.’ Some girls were shot when they escaped from the houses, and a few managed to escape and tell of the rapes they had suffered after reaching Bangladesh. ‘After all that, the soldiers left. Some of the people hiding with me went back to the village to see if there was anybody alive, but I just couldn’t do it. The idea of discovering the corpses of my wife and my children terrified me’, Abdullah recounted. He eventually arrived in Bangladesh, where he was now living with his oldest daughter, who had not been killed in Tula Toli because she was living in another village. ‘What happened was the will of God’, he concluded, with his face still drenched in pain. It was evident that the thought provided no consolation. A shattered man, Abdullah left the house where we had conducted our interview and was soon lost in the camps.
Tula Toli was a genocidal massacre that has been amply documented by human rights groups, researchers and journalists. The figures of how many Rohingya were killed there, and how many girls were raped before being burned alive, remain a mystery, as only the local authorities have household lists to compare with the number of survivors. Five hundred is probably a conservative estimate, and more than 1,000 most likely. But Tula Toli is not an isolated case. Several genocidal massacres, of varying intensity and scope but similar nature, took place in northern Arakan.
Not all the refugees in Bangladesh had fled from direct violence. Many, particularly those who had been the most recent arrivals two months after the exodus, told me that they had escaped out of fear, as they knew they might be next, and because life there had become unbearable. With their villages surrounded by security forces and mobs of Rakhine villagers, many were not able to farm their lands or go to work anymore. To escape, many had to make gruesome journeys on foot, which often took up to a week, before paying huge sums of money to Bangladeshi boatmen to cross the Naf river, which separates Burma from Bangladesh. Some spent days or even weeks in the no-man’s-land separating the two countries. The Burmese government had long ago built a fence on its side, a few metres away from the shore.
In October 2017, when I visited Bangladesh to cover the crisis, a group of up to 5,000 waited under a scorching sun on a beach between the fence and the river. I managed to talk on the phone with one of them, who told me how people were starting to become sick as a consequence of the heat and the scarcity of food. The BGP often observed them from the other side of the fence, not quite telling them to go, but their mere presence reminding them that they were not welcome back in their own country. By then, broken boats lay on the Bangladeshi side of the river, as the local authorities had cracked down on the boatmen who ferried the Rohingya to safety and destroyed many of their boats. The chance of crossing safely had thus diminished, at least at those points in the river that were not narrow enough to swim or walk across. But, two months after the clearance operations, there was still a constant stream of refugees who somehow managed to find a way out of Arakan and cross to what had already become the biggest refugee camp in the world.